More than 120 advocates from throughout Michigan convened in Lansing on April 11 to call for expanded rights and services for people experiencing homelessness. The second annual Homelessness Advocacy Day provided training, factsheets, and talking points to support the lobbying efforts of shelter providers, people with first-hand experience being homeless, and their allies. The event was organized by Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness (MCAH), one of NLIHC’s newest state partners.
Advocates met with 73 legislative offices, and presented advocacy materials in offices where they were unable to get on the calendar, covering all 110 representatives and all 38 senators. At each lobby meeting, advocates invited legislators to join upcoming policy roundtables in their respective communities to discuss housing affordability. At the Homelessness Advocacy Day debrief session, advocates indicated a growing awareness among legislators on homelessness policy interventions and a strong interest by lawmakers in an ongoing conversation.
The primary requests to legislators on Homelessness Advocacy Day fell into five categories: making it easier to obtain state IDs; expanding access to vital documents like birth certificates; decriminalizing homelessness; supporting affordable housing programs; and increasing funding for homeless services. To support these requests, MCAH provided advocates with key data from the state’s 2016 annual report. The data demonstrate the effectiveness of homeless services and housing programs, showing a 9% decrease in homelessness since 2014.
Advocates spoke in support of a proposed amendment to Senate Bill 404 which will add people experiencing homelessness as well as veterans to the eligibility list for Michigan’s “Free ID for Me” program. The Secretary of State’s office oversees Free ID for ME, which waives all fees for state identification cards. The program currently serves individuals who are blind, are over the age of 65, or have had their driver’s license suspended due to mental or physical disabilities. Expanding access to state identification cards is a high priority for MCAH advocates because access to supportive services and benefits usually requires this basic proof of identification. MCAH estimates that more than 30,000 people have been denied Social Security income, Medicaid, or Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program assistance (food stamps), due to their lack of state identification.
Access to birth records are a similar barrier for many people experiencing homelessness. In a 2017 survey of homeless service providers, birth certificates were identified as the most difficult vital document for a homeless person to acquire. Currently, birth certificates cost $34 when they are accessed through the Michigan Department of Health and Human Service’s (MDHHS) Vital Docs office. Advocates are pushing for the passage of House Bills 5418 and 5584, both of which include provisions allowing County Clerks to charge only the local fees for birth certificates, which average $13.38.
According to MCAH, 3,307 homeless individuals spent time in jail during 2017 as a result of their homelessness. In some cases, these stays were intentional. Thirty-nine percent of shelter staff members surveyed indicate they were aware of homeless individuals who committed imprisonable offenses just to have an opportunity for a warm bed in jail. To reduce recidivism by ex-offenders, advocates also urge legislators to recognize the importance of housing availability for returning prisoners. In Michigan, data show that formerly incarcerated individuals are twice as likely to recidivate when they do not have stable housing. To reduce criminalization, House Bill 4798 would allow for expungement of multiple convictions that arise from the same criminal infraction. For example, a person would not have a criminal record for a trespassing violation, a second one for failing to pay a fine for that same offense, and a third for a probation-violation stemming from the same instance. Too often, criminal records are structured to indicate a much more extensive history of criminal behavior than what actually occurred.
Advocates additionally emphasized the importance of programs that support housing affordability, but they did not request additional state-level funding since the current Michigan appropriations process does not include a housing budget committee, with the majority of homeless services funded with federal dollars. Rather, advocates are advancing Senate Bill 110 which allows municipalities to offer various incentives for more affordable housing affordability, incentives that have been banned statewide.
The big funding request during Homelessness Advocacy Day was for homeless services. Specifically, advocates asked that the legislature increase MDHHS funding for homelessness to $20 per shelter night from the current level of $16. By comparison, advocates shared that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pays $43.32 per shelter night.
“We are so delighted to have so many dedicated and active advocates throughout Michigan,” said Eric Hufnagel, executive director at MCAH. “This was only our second annual advocacy day, but we are already seeing progress in many legislative offices. Our task now is to continue to build these relationships and cultivate new legislative champions.”
For more information about Homelessness Advocacy Day and priority policy requests in Michigan, contact Laurel Burchfield, MCAH’s manager for marketing, growth & development at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness on Twitter @mihomeless #EndMIHomelessness.